Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dancing with the Creator

I never cease to be amazed at what I can learn from studying the feasts and festival cycles of Israel. For years I simply paid no attention to their significance, even though I taught Old Testament classes in both churches and college classroom settings. My response was usually, "These are for Israel and not for us today." Now I have learned that that response was only half correct: yes, the feasts and festival cycles were given for Israel to guide them in their relationship with a holy God; but, also yes, they can share much with us today.

Last year I made a determined effort to read through the Torah - the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Pentateuch or the Books of Moses - as they were being read in the synagogues around the world. I found a brief devotional book, written by a young rabbi, who shared thoughts associated with each of the scripture portions. God literally began to open those often difficult portions of Scripture to my heart. I began to notice truths I had not seen before. Perhaps it was because I was taking time to ponder those passages in a new way.

Today marks the final day of the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot. Tonight will be the final meal served in the sukkahs and then they will be dismantled and put away for another year, much like we do our Christmas decorations at the end of December. But there is one final event to mark the end of Tabernacles. It is known as Simchat Torah, or the Rejoicing in the Torah.

Friday will mark the observation of this special day. On this day the Torah scrolls will be removed from the "aron kodesh" (holy ark) - the place where the scrolls are contained in the synagogues - and will be embraced and celebrated with dancing and rejoicing. Priestly blessings are recited with many synagogues huddling all the children under the tallit (prayer shawl) to receive the words Jacob gave to his children so many years ago, as recorded in Genesis 48:16).

Friends, when was the last time you held the Word of God in your arms and danced in joy before the Lord because of it? If you are honest as I was, it has never been done. Somehow I never think of handling the Word and dancing as being related. But, remember David danced before the Ark of the Lord. The Psalmist said that God turns our mourning into dancing. The Word of God is to be our joy. Perhaps we could learn something from our Jewish friends and clasp the Word in our arms and rejoice over it. Perhaps then it will become for us more than just another book, but what it truly is - the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God!

As part of Simchat Torah, the final Torah portion for the year will be read - the closing two chapters in Deuteronomy, and the first Torah portion for the coming year will also be read - the opening chapters in Genesis.

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Ancient words. Words read every year about this time. Words expounded upon by many rabbis in synagogue services this weekend. Yet words that carry a new sense of excitement and wonder. God created! Things did not happen by chance! There was no magic pool from which life began! There was no lightning strike that ignited the protein molecules and sent them on their way! (I always wondered where the lightning came from and how the protein molecules got into that pool and, for that matter, how the pool came to be - never got any answers!)

I would encourage you, sometime this weekend, to reread Genesis 1 and 2 and give some reflection to the powerful truth that God is your Creator. Perhaps you might want to take a stroll in the woods - in Minnesota this is truly one of the most amazing season - and praise God for creating such brilliant colors. Celebrate the Word and your Creator! Perhaps that will be your personal Simchat Torah!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Chag Sukkot Sameach"

Sunset this evening will begin the seven day Jewish celebration known as Sukkot - the Feast of Tabernacles. So I want to wish each of you a "Chag Sukkot Sameach" - "A joy-filled Sukkot."

This is the final festival in a month of important Jewish events. You might remember that on September 8-9 was Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. That was followed on September 17-18 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We conclude this first month of the Jewish calendar - Tishrei - with this celebration.

The Feast of Tabernacles or Booths was one of the three so-called "pilgrimage feasts" cited in the Bible. All Jewish males were to make the trek to Jerusalem for this time of remembering God's provisions during the forty-years wandering in the wilderness. One aspect of this feast was that the Israelites were to erect booths - sukkot. In such structures all meals will be eaten and men will sleep. The sukkot are made of various materials - including wooden panels, curtains, even cardboard - and the roofs are covered with branches, allowing enough opening so that the stars are visible. Today some sukkot are very elaborate, while others are very simple; it all depends upon the resources available. Moses commanded the people in Leviticus 23:42-43: "Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God."

Another aspect of Chag Sukkot is the recitation of blessings over the Four Species that represent four types of Jews that comprise the people of Israel. These include the etrog (citron) - a fruit that has a good taste and fragrance, representing those people who have both good deeds and are filled with the wisdom of the Torah. The second Species is the lulav (palm frond) - it is edible, but has no fragrance, representing those people who have the wisdom from the Torah but are lacking in good deeds. The third Species is the hadassim (myrtle tree sprigs) - these have a very good fragrance but cannot be eaten, thus representing those people who have good deeds but lack wisdom from the Torah. The fourth Species is the aravot (branches from the red willow) - branches that have no taste and no fragrance, thus representing people who lack both wisdom and good deeds. Yet, on this particular occasion, all of these people come together to represent the entire people of Israel.

I find it fascinating that the Jewish year begins with two closely aligned celebrations. Yom Kippur is a reminder that only God can be our salvation; it is only through God that our sins can be atoned. The Sukkot is the reminder that God is the source of our provisions, as the people remember God's faithfulness during those 40 years of wilderness wandering. Think about those two truths for a moment: God is our salvation and God is our provision. What a great way to enter into a new year with those two thoughts upon hearts.

I know it is not time for our New Year. But I wonder what would happen if, during January, believers in Jesus Christ would take time to celebrate the salvation that we have in Him and to remember with joy the blessings we have in Christ. Perhaps then we might keep our focus upon Him more readily during the year.

So, once again I wish you a "chag sukkot sameach" - a "joy-filled sukkot."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Peace Talks: Who Is Driving the Car?

These are very interesting days if you are a prophetic watcher of the times. Peace talks continue today in Jerusalem between the Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority - claiming to represent the Palestinian people, but that is hardly an unanimous acclamation, just ask Hamas - and their Chairman Abbas. Of course Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell are there representing American interests, or at least what they claim to be American interests - to be honest, they are not my interests.

The subject is peace in the Middle East. I know I have written on this topic almost endlessly since I began this "Christianity for Today" blog over two years ago. But, it is important, not only from the standpoint of today, but from a biblical one as well. Remember, the land whose division is being proposed is the land God gave to Israel as their forever inheritance. It was a promise God made to Abram in Genesis 13 and 17. And, friends, when God makes a promise He does not renege on it.

Since 1948, Israel has been a member of the family of nations in the world. Its birth was predicated upon being a home for Jews, especially those who survived the Holocaust. And, according to the Israeli Constitution, freedoms are accorded all people who live within its borders. There is room in Israel for both Arab and Jew. [You won't find that to be true regarding the Arab lands...they only have room for Jews in Gaza today]. Israel has been threatened and attacked by her neighbors; the 1967 Six-Day War resulted in Israel reclaiming much of the land that God had promised to her, including the Old City of Jerusalem. Armistices were declared creating a greater Israel. Of course the world did not recognize the fruits of war, still using terms like "West Bank" or "Occupied Territories" for identification. [I wonder if I live in an "occupied territory" here in Minnesota; land taken by force from the Indians who lived here first. Ouch! I know that steps on toes!]

Do the Palestinian leaders really want peace? Do they really want to create a Palestinian State that will live in harmony with its neighbor Israel? To gain an answer, I would encourage you to view some of the video clips offered by the Palestinian Media Watch. Just this past Sunday - remember this is only days before talks about peace resume - Fatah TV (run by Chairman Abbas) stated that even cities like Joppa and Haifa should belong to a Palestinian State. Also, on Sunday, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO, which is part of the Palestinian Authority, headed by Chairman Abbas) envoy to Iran stated that if the Arab world would unite the "complete eradication of the fabricated regime of Israel" would happen. Sounds like real interest in peace, doesn't it? Then, today the Palestinian Media Watch shared portions of a Fatah TV documentary released last Thursday for Rosh Hashana, that showed the Western Wall - Judaism's most holy site - and the text stated, "They (Israelis) know for certain that our (Arab) roots are deeper than their false history. We, from the balcony of our homes, look out over (Islamic) holiness and on sin and filth (referring to the Jews praying at the Western Wall)". Another real incentive for peace, don't you think?

Friends, what greatly disturbs me is the American attitude of conciliation toward the Palestinians. Chairman Abbas can do no wrong; Prime Minister Netanyahu is criticized at every turn. It is always pressure upon the Israeli government and the Israeli people to make concessions: give in to whatever demands the Palestinians place upon them. And what of Israeli demands of the Palestinians: forget those!

On this eve of Yom Kippur (which begins at sunset on Friday), the holiest day in Judaism, the day when the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies and make atonement for the sins of the nation, Israel is positioned to be the sacrificial lamb so the world might have peace. Will there be peace? There might be a document of peace signed by all parties; but that will not mean peace! The Arab world will not recognize peace until Israel is driven into the sea. Peace can only come with the Prince of Peace arrives in Jerusalem to claim the throne that is rightly His! Until that time comes, we will watch with interest the "pseudo-peace" talks in the city of the King.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Shana tova on this Rosh Hashana

"Shana tova" to all of you and a Happy New Year. No, I have not lost my marbles, although I think I might have misplaced a few or they have gotten glued together. Today is Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the year 5771 on the Hebrew calendar. Actually it begins at sundown this evening. So, if you hear trumpets sounding in your neighborhood, I want you to know what it is all about.

In the Bible this celebration is called the Feast of Trumpets. Leviticus 23:23-25 states: "The LORD said to Moses, 'Say to the Israelites: "On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present an offering made to the LORD by fire."'" Rosh Hashana occurs on the first day of the month Tishri, which is the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. It is a two day celebration. The festival begins with the blowing of the trumpets or shofar, thus the name Feast of Trumpets. One of the traditions for the Rosh Hashana is the dipping of apples into honey, expressing the strong desire that the coming year be filled with sweetness. Also, the bread bakers produce round loaves of the challah bread, representing the circular aspect of time - another year has come.

In the Jewish Talmud - the ancient rabbinical commentary on the Torah - the rabbis suggested that the world was created during the month of Tishri; others taught that man, himself, was created on Rosh Hashana.

The term Rosh Hashana means "head of the year." And the greeting "Shana tova" literally means "the year is good." There is something about the way the Jews express their ideas that I find fascinating. We go around on January 1 and say "Happy New Year." But, will the year be filled with happiness? It usually is not, as problems, heart-aches, and difficulties arise. The Jews are not oblivious to the problems that will come during the year either. But, in their greeting of "the year is good" there is the hint of a purpose, I believe. "The year is good" because it is another year given by God. "The year is good" because we will find purpose during our traversing through it. We may not know what the year will hold, but we do know that important lessons will be learned, friendships will be established, life will become fuller because of the year; thus the "year is good".

So, my friends, "Shana tova" and welcome to the year 5771. May it be a time of renewed commitment to Christ. May you know the goodness that comes from the hand of the Lord.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Let There Be Peace...?

How should we define the word "peace" today? Is it merely the absence of armed conflict? If all the armies and navies in the world suddenly disarmed themselves would there be peace? Or, is peace merely the good intentions of trying to live together in harmony? We often say that peace comes into a family when Mom and Dad and the kids no longer are shouting at each other. If the world stopped "shouting at each other" would there be peace?

The dictionary defines peace: 1. freedom from war or civil strife; 2. a treaty or agreement to end war; 3. freedom from public disturbance or disorder; public security; law and order; 4. freedom from disagreement or quarrels; harmony; concord; 5. an undisturbed state of mind; absence of mental conflict; serenity; 6. calm; quiet; tranquillity. If I could summarize these definitions, I think one could say that "peace is the absence of any problem that causes people to be at odds with one another."

Peace is NOT a signed peace treaty. Following the surrender of Confederate General Robert E Lee, the armed conflict known as the Civil War stopped, but the hatred continued for years and, in some respects, continues even until today. Treaties, in and of themselves, do not bring peace. Just ask the Israelis who thought peace was finally theirs following the 1993 Oslo Accords being signed ending a long six-year Palestinian Intifadah. But, just because signatures were on the paper did not bring peace.

I have been thinking about how the world goes about providing for peace. This is probably because of what is taking place in Washington DC today and tomorrow. As you know - or at least you should know - President Obama has invited the leaders of the Palestinians and the Israelis, along with the heads of State for Jordan and Egypt, to our nation's capital to begin dialogues about peace. The goal is to have peace in the region within one year's time. (Now remember that the Arabs have threatened and attacked Israel since that May 14, 1948, day when Israel was born...62 years of hatred and violence. And this will be resolved in a year?!)

From accounts I have read the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is coming with a list of pre-conditions, although no pre-conditions have been invited to the table. He wants Israel to continue the building freeze in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). He wants Jerusalem to be divided and patrolled by an international police force. And, he has threatened to walk out on the talks should his demands not be met. Does he want to be there? Not really. And, I believe in yesterday's attack by Hamas upon a car carrying four innocent Jewish civilians near Hebron and causing their deaths, we have the response of many Palestinians. Their only wish is for Israel to disappear back into Europe's ghettos (remember Helen Thomas's famous statement) or into the sea (the wishes of Iran's leader).

On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is under pressure from many back in Israel that he return immediately because of that attack. This would be a strong statement that the Israelis will not dialogue unless and until safety is guaranteed to every Israeli. So far the only thing the Prime Minister has done is to issue a statement strongly denouncing that murderous act.

A new treaty will not bring peace to Jerusalem, the Middle East, nor any other place. An international police force will not cause the citizens of Jerusalem to rest more easy. Supplying the latest military hardware to Middle Eastern countries will not bring peace by creating a military standoff.

Friends, real peace will only come to Jerusalem, Israel, the Middle East, and the entire world when the Prince of Peace comes. He will then establish a government that people will trust and respect because it is founded upon the eternal principles of God. The ancient prophet Isaiah spoke of those days: "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this" (Isaiah 9:7). Did you see those words "justice and righteousness?" "Righteousness" refers to the vertical component of life - to our relationship with God. When the Prince of Peace reigns, the world will be rightly configured with God through Him, thus resulting in peace. "Justice" refers to the horizontal component of life - to our relationships with others. When the Prince of Peace reigns, the world will be rightly configured with each other, thus resulting in lasting peace.

Until that day, the world will continue playing the game of "finding peace." More treaties will be created and signed - many of them broken within hours of the signing ceremonies. More conferences will be called to discuss peace with resolutions being passed to promote peace, only to have the peace shattered with an act of violence.

Let me close with a statement Jesus made to His disciples upon a mountainside in Galilee. It is the seventh Beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for their will be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9). It is the will of God that we should help people find peace. That peace comes when we lead them to Jesus who, through forgiving of their sins, truly sets them free. And that peace comes when we help people to be reconciled to one another.

Let there be peace...? Absolutely a worthy goal, but not attainable until Jesus comes!